How I Write A Song
There are many ways to approach song writing. This is my way. For the purpose of this article I am going to use my song "Hot Pink Wig" as an example. You can hear it and view the lyric on this video.
I'm still working at becoming a hit song writer. Along the way I have learned a few things and I hope that by sharing my song writing experiences, my insights will help others. Here's my process.
Getting An Idea
A good starting point is to look and listen. You may be amazed how many ideas can be generated by looking at the things around you or by hearing other people speak. It may simply be a catchy phrase that sparks your imagination or something as deep as a life's story.
When I started "Hot Pink Wig", I had a relative who had just been diagnosed with cancer. I wondered what the process would be like for her and how I could help her. I asked cancer survivors that I knew about their experiences to get a better understanding of what this disease meant for my relative. One day as I was mulling this information, I saw a young girl who had dyed her hair hot pink. I thought to myself, "If I was facing cancer I think I would want to wear a hot pink wig to "thumb my nose" at the disease". That was the starting point for my song idea.
If you can describe your song in a simple sentence, that will help to focus the overall idea. Let the lyric lines refer back to this concept as much as possible. "Hot Pink Wig" is about how determination and a fighting attitude in the face of adversity, specifically cancer, can lead to empowerment.
Another thing that makes a song more powerful is if it is true to you and holds your emotions. For me this song held the basic truth of wishing I could fight the cancer for my relative, the truth of what the cancer survivors had told me about their experiences and my emotions relating to my wish for my relative to be strong and survive.
Writing The Lyric
I usually like to start with a lyric and then move to a melody. So first I write any ideas that relate to my theme, any feelings, any images, without judgement. Later I can go back and weed out the things I don't like, rephrase ideas and start looking for rhymes. It is easy to fall into the trap of writing a line just to fit a rhyme. So for me, it is better to just write sentences and then see how I can adjust them to find rhymes.
A tip: it is best to show rather than tell when ever possible, using visual images and action in a phrase.
for example: "the day her hair fell out she sat down and cried"
By seeing her hair fall out and knowing that she cried the listener can guess that she has cancer without me telling them.
Form And Structure
As I write a lyric I will often find that it naturally fits into one of several forms:
Verse Chorus Verse Chorus Bridge Chorus
Verse Chorus Verse Chorus Verse Chorus
Verse Verse Chorus Verse Chorus Bridge Chorus
Verse Pre Chorus Chorus Verse Pre Chorus Chorus Verse Pre Chorus Chorus
"Hot Pink Wig" fits into the form,Verse Chorus Verse Chorus Bridge Chorus with a tag ending.
Within that form I build a rhyme scheme. That is, will the lines all end in the same rhyme? in alternating rhymes? in pairs or rhymes? etc. Once created, it is important to stick to that particular scheme. In my case I used pairs of rhymes: "cried /inside" "bubble gum /on" "down/ground". You might notice that "bubble gum" and "on" are not perfect rhymes but sometimes a close rhyme is fine.
Often I have one or two sections of a song that come easily and then I get stuck trying to finish the song. Some questions I ask myself are, what happens next? how did my character react to what came before? where is she going? And then I look to see if what I have written still refers back to my main idea. This often helps me get over the hump of the unfinished sections.
Once my lyrics are complete it is time to create a melody and harmony. I look to the main idea to see if this is a song that needs simple chords or something more nuanced. With "Hot Pink Wig" I wanted it to be as straight forward as possible so I used simple chords. In the verse, I am telling the story so I kept the shape of the melody and the range of the notes fairly small to keep the focus on the words instead of the music. That also gave me room to expand with a bigger chorus that helped me celebrate my character's survival.
Once I have the lyric, harmony and melody of my song complete, it is time to sit down and look at the whole and see if it makes sense, if the rhyme scheme is intact, if there is contrast and surprise anywhere in the song, if the rhythm of the words match between the various verses, and so on. It is also time to see if something can be said in a better way. In some cases I have re-written a song a dozen times before it was the best that I could do. It can be really frustrating but it is well worth it in the end.
Test The Song
While it is great to play a new song for friends and family, the feedback is biased. So I like to take my new song to an open mic or other songwriter venue and perform it. I may not perform it as beautifully as a professional artist but I usually can do well enough to tell how it effects the audience. When I performed "Hot Pink Wig" for the first time, the audience fell silent, gasped and many were in tears. At the end I had several people come up and ask where they could buy the song to share with their loved one who was battling cancer or who had just completed treatment. This told me that my song worked. There have been times with a new song when I felt the audience's attention drift off and then I knew the song needed another look and perhaps a re-write or a discard.
The Finished Product
Since my ultimate goal is to have my song sung by a recording artist, my next step was to have a profession demo made of the song. This helps show off a song in it's most positive light. What you heard in the video was a demo that was created by a studio that specializes in making demo recordings. A talented singer from Nashville sang the song for me and a group of excellent studio musicians played the accompanying music. At this point I consider my song finished and ready to pitch to an artist, record label, or publisher. And that is a totally different story!
By the way, I have since played the demo for several cancer survivors. They generally cry and then thank me, saying "This is my story, thanks for telling it". As a result I have released the demo as a single song album. Whether "Hot Pink Wig" ever gets on the radio or not, I know it has made a difference in these women's lives and I hope it will help others in the future.